World beating? With what university?

Source: blogspot.com

So much for the latest QS rankings. Under the regulations currently proposed, the Oxford that has topped the world yet again is being made a thing of the past. In front of our eyes it is being gutted of a huge amount of what makes it such an outstanding place. We should all ask – what exactly are we being left with?

Back in June, when many of us reflected upon our Trinity ‘term’, a common sentiment no doubt was that as terrible as it was, at least it would not constitute our send-off from Oxford, as it did for so many. We must all have taken some comfort in the fact that we would have at least another year and a final summer to finish our degrees properly, and would not be deprived of the experience that the cohort before us were. 

On the contrary, it seems that in light of recent developments, last year’s graduates got off lightly. We, on the other hand, appear to have a far more frustrating set of circumstances lined up for us: tantalisingly invited back into college only to be denied practically every aspect of college and university life. Under current social distancing rules (no longer guidelines), under the household system, and in light of Matt Hancock’s disappointing announcement on the evening of September 8th, it is impossible to see how anything: any society, any event, any gathering or celebration, will be able to maintain even a modicum of the freedom it was used to in order to take place. Have the university or colleges spoken up for the freedom of its students, have they spoken up in our defence and complained that what they are being allowed to offer us adds up to practically nothing? No, they have failed and instead they seem perfectly happy to enforce the rules, keep their mouths shut, and take our money. I ask: where is our collective outrage?

The Times Higher Education supplement writes, ‘Called the ‘city of dreaming spires’ by Victorian poet, Matthew Arnold, Oxford has the youngest population of any city in England and Wales: nearly a quarter of its residents are university students, which gives Oxford a noticeable buzz.’ Well, that buzz is now surely silent. It is clear to all of us reading our college guidelines that nothing we love can be allowed to survive. From formals to rowing, from college rugby to music concerts, evening recitals and evensong, everything must go. This is a travesty. Oxford’s success does not come simply through the massive investments it receives, through its technology and its facilities, and through its name. It starts from the ground up, with a young and vibrant student community, with its cocktail of beautiful surroundings, ancient traditions, forward-thinking and ambitious minds, and crucially the freedom for all of that to come together unrestrained and produce the community that makes Oxford great. To think that one can remove any of that, that one can remove our freedom to meet, engage, and eagerly or quietly enjoy each other’s company without restrictions and still keep Oxford a university worth being proud to attend is pure folly. It is nonsense. It is an absurd proposition.

Now one might raise two objections to the cry to open up the university as normal again. First you might say, ‘it is all only temporary, college has promised to update and review its policies wherever possible.’ However, if the Conservative government only just announced plans to make all social gatherings of only six people illegal, which way exactly are things going? If they blamed people in their 20’s and 30’s socialising for the spike in cases Bolton, does the voice of the government, which is indistinguishable from the voice of the university from what we have seen, seem to have any concern for young people desperate to live life normally again? 

Hardly, instead, in the face of an inevitable decline in general mental health of the student population, the university has announced no extra measures to ensure their students’ well-being. If forced to self-isolate, all my college has offered to do, for example, is to deliver cold food from the kitchen wrapped in clingfilm and put it on the floor outside the student’s room, and then charge full price on our battels when we are given no choice in what to eat. The ‘community spirit’ on show here truly is wonderful. For those of us living in college, it’s like living in a nightmarish boarding school, and it will not be getting better anytime soon. Even our college library is closed to readers, for ‘social distancing reasons’ – currently there’s nowhere at all to work. If a Trinity student wants to use a proper Oxford library they have to hope they get a booking to use one of the main libraries which are only taking 1/6th of their normal capacity. What kind of Oxford are we attending when we have to fight each other over places to enjoy the use of the Bodleian libraries? 

The second objection, naturally, is that these measures are necessary in the face of the current pandemic. The evidence, however, shows quite clearly that people our age are perhaps the least vulnerable group when it comes to Covid. Of the approximately 25,000 incidents of positive tests in American universities and rising, only a single individual has been reported as sufficiently ill to end up in hospital, and even then coronavirus seems to be only one of many factors. (These tests also cannot distinguish between a living and a dead virus: people who had it months ago but are still now shedding dead, non-infectious virus cells still test positive.) Young people are more likely to be killed in fluke accidents than we are by Covid, hit by a bus while cycling on the high street, for example, or killed by a collapsing college chapel organ (if we are even allowed inside said chapels). Professor Carl Heneghan, director of the Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine here at Oxford has repeatedly pointed out that for those under-50, the chance of dying from coronavirus is so infinitesimally small, for all intents and purposes it’s zero (see figure 5 here for example). If you want to see what really kills healthy adults then the data from 2018 is openly available: deaths from coronavirus simply don’t compare to the numbers there, which are unlikely to have radically changed.

As for the potentially vulnerable in the Oxford community, it could make more sense to take measures to protect those who are uncomfortable with the risk to their own health and channel efforts to protect people in such positions rather than shut down the entirety of university life. If a particular tutor was not comfortable meeting their students in person for fear of infection, for example, I do not think any student I have met in my time here would be the sort of person to complain and insist on face-to-face interaction rather than video-calls, if requested. As for returning home and bringing the virus back to vulnerable family members, it would surely make more sense to let the university operate normally, and then test students at the end of term so we know which of us can return home safely, and provide extended housing for those who ought to wait. 

Oxford students are decent and well-meaning people, more than happy to make sacrifices to help each other out, what we cannot be expected to tolerate, however, is to be completely denied the joy that comes with attending this university. We hear in the news all the time of rising cases, rising infections, a spike here or a spike here, but how many of the articles that we read or the reports we watch state the simple fact that nationally deaths continue to decline? Daily deaths remain around 10 or in single figures, yet on average around 1400 people a day die in this country; that’s one in 140 deaths, and that doesn’t distinguish between deaths from Covid, or deaths with Covid. We are at the stage now when common diseases that we have lived with for decades and centuries kill more people than Covid (in August, the flu and pneumonia were up to 5 times as deadly). Covid-19 is a disease that seems now to have shifted mostly to under 40’s,  a demographic to which the virus simply does not pose a serious health threat. Life is a matter of calculated risk, and this madness, the government’s draconian measures, and the culture of fear and overprotection simply cannot last.

The term ‘social distancing’ has always troubled me slightly, despite its perfectly sensible appearance and its obvious merits. I believe it is well meaning, reasonable, and it may very well have had a large role in preventing the spread of the virus; however, there are two subtle effects of this kind of policy which I do not believe are unreasonable, or comprise some deranged-conspiracy-theory, to point out, and are things which I believe will further harm the students of this university in the coming weeks. First, what has been introduced is an unfortunate culture that makes us view each other constantly as threats to our own health, potential transmitters of a deadly disease that could put us on a ventilator at a moment’s notice – not so much people, but as far as we can tell: the ‘infected’. Second, in the name of this policy we are being isolated and separated from the people we should be engaging with most, restricted us to our rooms as much as possible, being made to live in front of our laptop screens from dawn till dusk.

I would argue that this does not constitute proper life, nor does it constitute a university experience, and certainly not one at Oxford. The discussion needs to be properly had as to whether the predicted (and, as I have argued here, doubtful) health benefits of the regulations merit the enormous damage being done to student life. I suspect they do not.